He died while restrained by officers. The coroner called it a homicide. His family has sued

A memorial to Fresno man who died in police handcuffs

An edited portion of a video shown at the memorial service for Fresno man Joseph Perez, who died after being restrained by police in May 2017.
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An edited portion of a video shown at the memorial service for Fresno man Joseph Perez, who died after being restrained by police in May 2017.

On a warm May morning a year ago, Fresno police officers and sheriff's deputies encountered a man who was talking to himself, yelling and acting strangely near Palm and Dakota avenues.

Because the officers believed Joseph Perez, 41, was in the midst of a mental breakdown, or possibly under the influence of drugs, they called for an ambulance.

What happened next during the morning hours of May 10, 2017, is the subject of wrongful-death, civil-rights lawsuit filed by Perez's family in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

The lawsuit contends the officers handcuffed Perez and ordered him to sit on a curb. But at one point, the officers "used force against decedent and restrained him," the lawsuit says. During the encounter, the defendants "caused decedent's death by asphyxiating him."

The Coroner's Office later determined Perez had methamphetamine in his body, but his death was caused by "compression asphyxia during restraint." He died as a result of a homicide, according to Perez's death certificate.

"It's a tragedy that no family should have to go through," said Los Angeles attorney Neil Gehlawat. He and attorney Michael Alder represent the Perez family.

"We are obviously troubled by the coroner's finding that Mr. Perez was the victim of a homicide," Gehlawat said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the city of Fresno, Fresno County, police Sgt. James Rossetti, police officers Sean Calvert and Chris Martinez, and sheriff's deputies Robert McEwen, Braithan Stoltenberg, Karlson Manasan and Jimmy Robnett, for an alleged wrongful death and negligence.

Sheriff's spokesman Tony Botti and Fresno city spokesman Mark Standriff declined to comment, saying it is against policy to comment on pending or ongoing legal matters.

The Perez lawsuit is one of several filed against the Fresno Police Department alleging wrongful death at the hands of officers.

In March, the city was sued in connection with the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Isiah Murrietta-Golding by police Sgt. Ray Villalvazo. Murrietta-Golding was shot after he ran from a traffic stop. He was later determined to be unarmed.

The Fresno Police Department also faces wrongful-death, civil-rights trials in the shooting deaths of 19-year-old Dylan Noble, Freddy Centeno, 40, and Casimero "Shane" Casillas, 45.

But in the past year, the department has prevailed in several civil rights cases, including the dismissal of a lawsuit last October in the 2014 police shooting death of 18-year-old Joseph Ma, who ran from police after a traffic stop.

In July, the city of Fresno paid $25,000 to the family of Martin Figueroa, 27, who was shot and killed by police inside his home three years ago. But the city admitted no wrongdoing in settling that case. That same month, a federal civil rights case involving the police shooting death of 22-year-old Miguel Moreno Torrez was dismissed because his family failed to comply with a court order to give their depositions and exchange evidence. Their lawyer said in court papers they were in Mexico and unable to participate in legal proceedings.

In addition, in June 2016, a federal jury ruled that two Fresno police officers were justifiable in the 2014 shooting of a woman armed with kitchen knives. Veronica Lynn Canter, 48, was fatally shot on March 7, 2014, after she locked her ex-boyfriend out of his apartment near Bulldog Stadium.

But the city must pay for the 2009 police shooting death of Stephen Willis. Court records say the city owes more than $300,000 to Stephen's parents, Chris and Mary Willis, and about $1 million in court costs and attorneys fees to the family's San Francisco-based legal team of Walter Walker III, Beau Burbidge and Peter Koenig.

The Sheriff's Office has had few lawsuits involving fatal shootings by deputies. Most of their lawsuits involve jail deaths and assaults, and medical care for inmates.

Excessive force?

The Perez lawsuit accuses the officers and deputies of excessive force and negligence because they were allegedly improperly trained in the use of force and restraint techniques, and did not know the dangers of asphyxia during restraint.

Perez, an air conditioning repairman, was married and had two children. His family said he was the oldest of five children and loved camping, music and dancing.

"He was our big brother who always took care of everyone," said Michelle Perez, 32, who fondly remembered her brother who "loved to smile and hug and kiss people."

"If you were sad, he would make you happy," she said. "He was also funny and loved to joke around."

Though his death certificate says he had used methamphetamine, Gehlawat said Perez's drug use was not an underlying cause of his death. He said the officers and deputies who restrained Perez killed him.

Perez was killed within two miles of his home, his family said.

According to the Sheriff's Office, dispatch received a call about 10:30 a.m. May 10, 2017, about a man "acting strange, running and yelling" on Palm Avenue near Santa Fe Drive. Fresno police patrol officers were the first to encounter the man. and were then joined by sheriff's deputies. "Members of both agencies contacted the man and detained him," a sheriff's news release says.

Due to Perez's mental state, and possibly being under the influence, an ambulance was called. The news release does not mention Perez being handcuffed or give details about what happened next. But "during the drive to the hospital, the suspect died," the news release says.

The coroner's report said Perez had multiple abrasions and bruises to his head, nose, chin, neck, shoulders and chest, Gehlawat said.

In general, restraint asphyxia can happen when a person is handcuffed and left in a prone position and is unable to reposition himself or herself in order to breathe.

Gehlawat said that law enforcement officials handcuffed Perez and restrained him by putting him face down on the ground. He said Perez died at the scene, but was later pronounced dead by a doctor at Community Regional Medical Center.

"We intend to fight this in court and obtain justice on the family's behalf," Gehlawat said.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts